Saturday, March 8, 2014

Guys with Beards: Fashion Statement or Lack of Grooming?

A reader recently took me to task for berating the men at the March 2 Academy Awards who didn't shave before putting on their tuxes. His words:

"Facial hair on men is a natural feature and looks fine when properly groomed. Hatred of a natural feature of the male body is irrational, Jeremy."

It's hard to argue with the first half of this. The looks of some men actually improve with facial fuzz. Some grow beards to hide chins that slant rather than curve, which is perfectly acceptable. And a number of black men do it to cover up bumpy facial terrain that's left that way by ingrown hairs. Before I discovered Tend Skin, the magic potion that has virtually conquered my own razor bumps, I tried the bearded look myself, sometimes for months at a time. Even now, I shave only two or three times a week, having learned to live with my gray-speckled stubble.

A few men might grow beards in order to make themselves appear more masculine. I have no hard proof of this, but I suspect this plays into the recent proliferation of furry-faced guys in the gay community after decades of metrosexual smoothness. Beards are to the 2010s what moustaches were to the 1970s Village People era. Whether you love or loathe them is a matter of personal taste. I've always regarded beards the way I do green: What makes some people look colorful and stylish makes others look like leprechauns.

Regardless of the specifics behind why a man chooses to grow a beard -- to hide some facial flaw(s), to join a growing trend, or to make getting ready in the morning easier -- whether it represents a lack of grooming depends on how much grooming one puts into it. There is, after all, a difference between maintaining a beard and simply not shaving.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of "groom" that has nothing to do with weddings is 1) to clean and care for (an animal), 2) to make (someone) neat and attractive, 3) to make (something) neat, smooth, or attractive."

By that very definition, the men I mentioned in that Oscars blog post would not quality as being particularly groomed as far as facial hair is concerned. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I find fashion commentary to be boring and useless in general, and I loathe the red-carpet fashion police/style Nazis, but unless you have to stay hairy for a role (like Jake Gyllenhaal, above, currently filming the 2015 film Everest, in which he stars as a mountain climber), shaving for a formal event says, "I cared enough to make an effort," just as much as putting on a tuxedo does.

Even Richie, Patrick's previously hirsute boyfriend on Looking, knew this. He shaved off his beard to attend Patrick's sister's wedding in the seventh episode, which, for me, said more about how he regarded Patrick than buying a cheap $4 trinket for him to wear around his neck in episode six did. I think he also improved his looks tremendously in the process. (Now if only we could get Agustin to follow suit and ditch hirsute.)

That's not to say I have a problem with facial hair. Like so many things in life, it comes down to personal preference. I think beards can be hot. Some guys even look better with them. When I met my ex-boyfriend Jayden, he was more or less clean-shaven. Shortly afterwards, he grew a beard, and the transition was so gradual, I didn't even notice that he had done it until a few months later, when he shaved it off.

As he sat across the dining room table from me, looking like a different person, explaining how his face felt naked and how he needed something to camouflage his weak chin (slanted, not curved), I couldn't believe how different he looked. He didn't have a beard the first time ever I saw his face, but I'd subconsciously gotten so used to him having one, though I never once consciously acknowledged it, that although he was once again clean-shaven, he still didn't look anything like the clean-shaven guy I had met. I couldn't wait for the beard to grow back!

Eventually, it did, and for the next year or so, he kept it short -- a happy visual medium between stubble and full-on forest -- and it was probably one of my favorite features on him. We never went to the Oscars or to any other formal event, so there was never any occasion for him to consider shaving it off completely, or manicuring it old-school George Michael-style.

I didn't see Jayden for nearly a year after we broke up, and when we met again, he had put on 13 kilos (by his count), three of them probably in facial hair alone. I didn't mention either aspect of the weight gain, and he only acknowledged the extra padding around his midsection, so I didn't find out whether he was going for a certain look with his beard, if he was trying to appear older than his 24 years, or if he just couldn't be bothered to shave it off. His high ponytail might have suggested the latter, but when he adopted an undercut a few weeks later, it became clear that his overall aim was to make some kind of fashion statement.

I was still so smitten by him that I didn't care. We briefly reconciled, and I wasn't any less attracted to him than I was the day we met (when he had no facial hair), or the day we broke up (when his facial hair was somewhere between stubble and full-grown beard). Had his beard been dragging on the floor, we probably would have stumbled back into our old pattern anyway, shagginess be damned. I was that into him.

So no, I don't have an "irrational" hatred of facial hair on men. It simply depends on the man. Like hairy legs or hairy armpits on a woman, whether you like it or not is a matter of taste. I recently met a man from Zimbabwe who spent five minutes complaining about guys with unruly underarm hair, which felt a bit extreme to me, but to each his own, right?

If we all were perfectly willing to accept hair in all the places where it grows naturally, manscaping wouldn't exist, neither would waving, nor electrolysis, nor hair cuts. But does shaving one's chest equal a hatred of body hair, of is it merely someone wanting to show off his pecs in all their glistening glory? What about those who prefer a smooth hard body to a sexy naturally hairy one? Do they hate body hair, or do they just prefer one thing over another?

I've never taken the time to notice a man's underarm hair, much less complain about it, but I shave my chest once a week. I do this for my own benefit. I like how it looks smooth, and I like how it looks with a week's worth of hair growth covering it. This, however, is not necessarily what I find attractive on others. I prefer my men a little on the tousled side (like Jayden), so a lack of grooming in everyday life isn't a bad thing. In fact, I've never been into guys who are too plucked and precisioned. But I stand by my Oscars observation, which in no way endorses a hatred of facial fair or any other kind of body hair. I want to see all of Michael Fassbender's beautiful face!

As for Jayden, it's been one year since the last time I saw him, and when I picture him (which is still pretty much every day), it's with his high ponytail and Unabomber beard. Some people might not consider it his most attractive look, but even with his head full of hair, I find him just as desirable as I did the day we met.
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